Monday, August 15, 2011

Rothbard’s Argument for Natural Rights: A Critique

Natural rights and natural law were traditionally defended by appeal to the existence of a god or divine agent. Like other early modern natural law philosophers, Murray Rothbard rejected the idea of basing natural law on the existence of god or through theological justifications, but leaves open the question of the existence of god:
“The Thomist tradition … [sc. vindicates] the independence of philosophy from theology and [sc. proclaims] … the ability of man’s reason to understand and arrive at the laws, physical and ethical, of the natural order. If belief in a systematic order of natural laws open to discovery by man’s reason is per se anti-religious, then anti-religious also were St. Thomas and the later Scholastics, as well as the devout Protestant jurist Hugo Grotius. The statement that there is an order of natural law, in short, leaves open the problem of whether or not God has created that order; and the assertion of the viability of man’s reason to discover the natural order leaves open the question of whether or not that reason was given to man by God. The assertion of an order of natural laws discoverable by reason is, by itself, neither pro- nor anti-religious.” (Rothbard 2002: 4).
In this, Rothbard tries to find a non-religious or secular justification for natural law and natural rights independent of the existence of god.

According to Rothbard, natural law and natural rights are supposedly deduced from the essential nature of human beings. Rothbard presents his case for natural rights in For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (rev. edn; 2002 [1973]):
“Let us turn then to the natural-rights basis for the libertarian creed, a basis which, in one form or another, has been adopted by most of the libertarians, past and present. ‘Natural rights’ is the cornerstone of a political philosophy which, in turn, is embedded in a greater structure of ‘natural law.’ Natural law theory rests on the insight that we live in a world of more than one—in fact, a vast number—of entities, and that each entity has distinct and specific properties, a distinct ‘nature,’ which can be investigated by man’s reason, by his sense perception and mental faculties. Copper has a distinct nature and behaves in a certain way, and so do iron, salt, etc. The species man, therefore, has a specifiable nature, as does the world around him and the ways of interaction between them. To put it with undue brevity, the activity of each inorganic and organic entity is determined by its own nature and by the nature of the other entities with which it comes in contact. Specifically, while the behavior of plants and at least the lower animals is determined by their biological nature or perhaps by their ‘instincts,’ the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life. Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.” (Rothbard 2002 [1973]: 26-27).
Against this a number of points can be made, as follows:

(1) It is not even clear that “since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values.” Virtually all human beings begin life as children subject to the coercion of their parents who choose to instruct their children with knowledge and values. Children can survive and flourish while being subject to quite severe parental constraints and rules. For example, if one is raised Catholic, one did not give one’s consent as a child to be raised with Catholic values and religion: the choice was made by the parents, but one may well become a moral, successful, and prosperous human being, despite that parental coercion in knowledge and values.

There are even adults who prefer to let others choose their ends. Certain mentally impaired human beings can survive and even flourish even though they are subject to strict control by their carers (on these criticisms, see Feser, Edward, “Rothbard as a philosopher,” August 8, 2009).

(2) Rothbard is wrong that humans possess “no automatic instincts”
Rothbard makes a bold statement:
“Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life.”
What? Human beings do possess “automatic instincts”: hunger, thirst, and a vast range of genetically determined behavioural traits. To take one example: human children have a genetic predisposition to acquire language as naturally as a bird grows its feathers.

(3) Rothbard commits the “is-ought” problem of David Hume.
The central passage where Rothbard attempts to deduce a human being’s natural right to be free from violence or coercion is here:
“the nature of man is such that each individual person must, in order to act, choose his own ends and employ his own means in order to attain them. Possessing no automatic instincts, each man must learn about himself and the world, use his mind to select values, learn about cause and effect, and act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life. Since men can think, feel, evaluate, and act only as individuals, it becomes vitally necessary for each man’s survival and prosperity that he be free to learn, choose, develop his faculties, and act upon his knowledge and values. This is the necessary path of human nature; to interfere with and cripple this process by using violence goes profoundly against what is necessary by man’s nature for his life and prosperity. Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’; it violates the natural law of man’s needs.”
This is subject to Hume’s “is–ought problem”. How is it possible to derive the prescriptive or normative statement (“violent interference with a man’s learning and choices is therefore profoundly ‘antihuman’) from mere descriptive ones?

To see how unconvincing this argument is, one only needs to make some changes to it to see its absurdity:
“the nature of a leaf under the influence of gravity is to fall to the ground, such that each leaf must, in order to fall, be free from obstruction and interference when it detaches from the tree. Possessing no automatic instincts, each leaf must be subject to gravity, and fall to the ground; to interfere with and cripple this process by using interference to stop the leaf falling to the ground goes profoundly against what is necessary by the leaf’s nature. Violent interference with a leaf’s nature is therefore profoundly ‘antileaf’; it violates the natural law of the leaf’s natural action.”
Just because the nature of a leaf is to fall to the ground under the influence of gravity, it does not follow that the leaf has any moral right whatsoever to fall to the ground.

(4) Rothbard’s argument for the “right to self-ownership” is flawed.
Rothbard’s defence of the “right to self-ownership” is as follows:
“The most viable method of elaborating the natural-rights statement of the libertarian position is to divide it into parts, and to begin with the basic axiom of the ‘right to self-ownership.’ The right to self-ownership asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to ‘own’ his or her own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since each individual must think, learn, value, and choose his or her ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation. Consider, too, the consequences of denying each man the right to own his own person. There are then only two alternatives: either (1) a certain class of people, A, have the right to own another class, B; or (2) everyone has the right to own his own equal quotal share of everyone else. The first alternative implies that while Class A deserves the rights of being human, Class B is in reality subhuman and therefore deserves no such rights. But since they are indeed human beings, the first alternative contradicts itself in denying natural human rights to one set of humans. Moreover, as we shall see, allowing Class A to own Class B means that the former is allowed to exploit, and therefore to live parasitically, at the expense of the latter. But this parasitism itself violates the basic economic requirement for life: production and exchange.” (Rothbard 2002 [1973]: 28).
Rothbard’s claim that there are only “two alternatives” to denying each man the right to own his own person is manifestly false, as is shown by Edward Feser (“Rothbard as a philosopher,” August 8, 2009).

In fact, there are a number of alternatives that Rothbard does not consider, as Feser notes:

(1) no human actually owns himself or herself;
(2) a divine, creator being owns all human beings;
(3) one group of human beings might have a right to partial ownership of another group;
(4) all human beings have a partial and/or unequal ownership of everyone else.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rothbard, M. N. 2002. The Ethics of Liberty, New York University Press, New York, N.Y. and London.

Rothbard, M. N. 2002 [1973]. For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto (rev. edn), Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Rothbard, M. N. 2006 [1970]. Power and Market: Government and the Economy, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, Ala.

Feser, Edward, “Rothbard as a philosopher,” August 8, 2009

11 comments:

  1. Actually, even the religious have a reason to reject natural rights.

    As a few traditionalist Catholics explain, the idea of man being some purely natural creature only trends towards man being some sort of deterministic beast bound only by cause and effect, and not an intelligent creature that reflects divine creation. They dislike appeal to nature, because it is an attempt to go against tradition and established practice by trying to invoke higher law. Such views of state of nature are assigned to "anti-Christian ideologues" such as Rousseau, Hobbes, or Locke.

    But that's their POV. I am, of course, secular.

    The idea of natural rights seems to be something halfway between secular thought and theological thought, but never exactly fits into either. It's too metaphysical to be scientific, but it is too deterministic to be religious.

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  2. It's hard to defend , something like natural rights and by implication, someone as intolerant as Rothbard, but here goes-
    Lets start with Hume's really really bad is ought problem. Even Sam Harris attacks it as lazy nonsense http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/sam-harris
    Every act of "if-then goal directed behavior every act of engineering is based on the premise that you can derive an ought from an is.

    I can almost hear the response: "How do you know that the goal directed behaviour is itself moral?" its a good question. First we can note that every ought and value is itself a species of fact. ("It is a fact that John Smith marching in 1963 believes that jim crow laws are wrong because they violate the human rights of black people.). Second every value and preference presupposes another assumption behind it, and another, and another, in a non-vicious infinite regress. (y -> y1->y2 etc,)
    There are trillions of possible variables out there, the ones that are the most fruitful and have the most powerful are the ones that are the most encompassing.
    For example, you believe in rule utilitarianism. Thats fine, I have no problem with it per se except that i think it is incomplete. I also think snobbish arrogant utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham were engaging in exercises of mass delusion and self-contradiction. For if happiness is the moral standard, and the rules which enhance the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people are the right rules doesn't that imply that people have a RIGHT to enjoy such happiness? where does this right come from i wonder? Could it be (gasp) nature?
    The second problem is the vagueness of such a happiness standard in the first place. utility and happiness is such a subjective concept, the clash of preferences is a real problem, whereas life and liberty is clearer and more, if not totally objective
    The third objection i have against utilitarianism is the problem of mob rule or majority tyranny. Utilitarianism offers a rather weak objection against the problem of a lynch mob against an innocent victim, it would not be in the best interests of the mob's "long term happiness" to inflict pain on an innocent victim. Natural rights on the hand, offer an enormously powerful and iron hard moral sentiment against majority tyranny. I have a right to live my life, stand alone and be happy, will of the majority be damned! People didnt sit in seg. restaurants for utility! They didnt fight the nazis for utility! they fought for their human rights!

    Let me stress that I'm not a rothbardian i'm more of neo-lockian, I favor natural rights, (although my natural rights is less like rothbard and more a rule consequentalism based on life and liberty rather than just utility,) social contract ethics, and utilitarianism. I believe in them all, I'm not close minded like some people.

    Oh and by the way, LA Rollins was a holocaust denier, really classy guy youve got there. His response to natural rights is a joke, natural rights are prescriptive not descriptive,
    Cheers
    Ed

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  3. "Let me stress that I'm not a rothbardian i'm more of neo-lockian, I favor natural rights, (although my natural rights is less like rothbard and more a rule consequentalism based on life and liberty rather than just utility,"

    In which case, the "rights" you favour are not "natutral", but mere ethical and legal constructs.

    Many important actual rights that we can enjoy and see enforced tend to be ones
    that require a state to enforce them, not some mafia-like private protection agencies.

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  4. "Lets start with Hume's really really bad is ought problem. Even Sam Harris attacks it as lazy nonsense http://www.intelligencesquared.com/events/sam-harris
    Every act of "if-then goal directed behavior every act of engineering is based on the premise that you can derive an ought from an is"


    The goal directed behavior that is invoked here is very different from the goal directed behaviour related to morality.

    Yes, you can derive an ought from is in ordinary goal directed activities, but this is not a "moral" is. To say that you should build a building here is not to say that building a building here is the "right" thing to do, because if you decided not to build it there (but somewhere else) this would not be morally "wrong" - juat a change in your goal with respect to location.

    If the goal directed behavior argument were sound, then you would have to strip all ethical theories of all talk of good/right and bad/wrong: leaving you with an empty theory explaining nothing about morality.

    If you say "you ought not to steal" because we must have the goal of avoiding these consequences (loss of property to theft etc), then the response will be: but why must we avoid these consequences?

    The answer can only be that they are bad/immoral.

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  5. Correction:

    "but this is not a "moral" ought.

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  6. There is yet another obvious positivist alternative to claiming each man has the right to own his own person.

    Rights that exist are human legal creations: moral "rights" (including natural rights) are merely wishes like invisible pink unicorns.

    Since rights are what we actually create, we can look at various societies and see that humans never own their persons. Somebody may say that a rebel rejecting all claims of others owns himself, but no, that is merely possession which can be easily changed.

    One of the major aspects of liberalism is to create the legal illusion of self ownership to whatever extent is practical, because it is what most of us want and because it has many beneficial externalities. Libertarians, born on this liberal third base, assume they hit a triple with their philosophy.

    Practical limitations to legal self-ownership exist everywhere and in every society with law. Those who can't support themselves (children, elderly, ill, etc.) everywhere have less legal self-ownership. Duties to society (taxes, military service, obediance to laws) exist everywhere.

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  7. Natural rights were developed out of self interest. To say that you don't own your own body is not only irrational, but is an apology for group rule, and statism.

    In other words, you have a right to what someone else arbitrarily decides you have a right to, and since you don't own your own body, you are not in any way in charge of your own actions, so you have no right defend your life, your property, or the right to engage in life; which is self sustaining, self generated action without consent of the overlords. So natural rights shouldn't apply to individuals because some group arbitrarily assumed power and control over other human beings....lol...right.. "Libertarians, born on this liberal third base, assume they hit a triple with their philosophy." What if a person isn't born on liberal 3rd base, and was born into a dictatorship, where government isn't based on natural rights, but on the nihilistic arbitrary whims of the people who happen to be born into the ruling class. Since the inhabitants of this land don't own their own bodies, do they have the right to assert their natural rights, or are they at the mercy of the rulers in charge.

    Rothbard didn't believe in government because he felt that you couldn't coerce future generations, or even the current generation who may not agree with the government that was formed into a contract without their consent. And that granting a monopoly on the protection of natural rights was against natural rights.

    Man is born free. The fact that people form groups in an attempt to lord over each other doesn't change that.

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  8. Anomynous, you are right when you say "rights were developed out of self interest", but that does not make them "natural" in anyway. Different people do have different interests. If it is in someone's self-interest to kill you, is it his right to do so? When you state that "to say that you don't own your own body is not only irrational" you are conflating "control" with "ownership". If you control something you do not necessarily own it, if a thieve steals your car, he controls it, but he do not own your car. Ownership is nothing but the recognition by others that you have the right to control your "property", but there is no reason why other people should recognize your claims on "property". In other words property is a social construct, and depends on the opinion of other people. Furthermore the denial of "self-ownership" is not an "apology" of group rule or "statism", since the state does not have any right to your body or either. This is a false dichotomy, the absence of "natural" individual rights does not imply the justification of the state. Rights are nothing but social constructs, and so no state claim any right to rule unless it is accepted by its citizens.

    "Rothbard didn't believe in government because he felt that you couldn't coerce future generations", the very idea of "natural rights" is nothing but the "coercion of future generations". This because the so called natural rights are pre-defined are formed "without their consent". If we as a society decide to implement this doctrine, then we do this without consulting future generations. In a democracy, with all its flaws, gives people at least the opportunity to influence the rules which regulates society, to change the laws they do not like.

    " What if a person[...] was born into a dictatorship, where government isn't based on natural rights, but on the nihilistic arbitrary whims of the people who happen to be born into the ruling class." Besides this argument is a logical fallacy (of adverse consequences), then still such ruling class can only function as long as "the people" are willing to accept its authority. Those who reject the ruling class can either (try to) flee the country or organize a revolution. Even is a government is not based on "natural" rights, there are no a priori reasons to assume that this government will automatically violate the "rights"of its citizens. Actually it is in the interest of the government to grant the people at least some rights in order to keep people quiet. As Machiavelli explained in his "The Prince", a ruler should keep the peace with his subjects and in particular the government should respect the "property" of its citizens as much as possible. In fact the protection of individual rights is not the interest of the people, but it serves only the interest of the government.

    The entire "theory" of "natural" rights is nothing but empty rhetorics, because it fails to present a valid logical argument in its favor.

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  9. This is one of the most seemingly academic but really just idiotic deconstructions of arguments I have ever seen.

    1)

    Rothbard is right - you're just not understanding what he is saying. He is not saying it is impossible for man to prosper under what he calls antihuman conditions - it is just antihuman to coerce these conditions upon man and thus breaking man's natural rights.

    2)

    Hunger and thirst are not instincts but impulses - we cannot actively obstruct instinct but as both you and I know man is capable of starving and dehydrating to death even when presented food or liquid.

    Your deconstruction of both argument 3 and 4 are just plain absurd and I do not intend on wasting any more time on arguing against your evident fallacies.

    And for all you commenters saying that the theory of natural rights is nothing but empty rhetoric because it isn't possible to logically prove it's existence know nothing of scientific methodology.

    You should all be ashamed of yourself for arrogantly believing you're all smarter than Murray Newton Rothbard.

    God damn socialists...

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  10. "Rothbard is right - you're just not understanding what he is saying. He is not saying it is impossible for man to prosper under what he calls antihuman conditions - it is just antihuman to coerce these conditions upon man and thus breaking man's natural rights."

    Rothbard says that as men can act only as individuals, it is "vitally necessary FOR EACH MAN'S SURVIVAL AND PRSOPERITY" to not being subject to "Violent interference with a man’s learning and choices".

    So, if men can act not only as individuals (if their behavior is externally constrained but even so they can act) his natural right to self-ownership is no longer natural.

    Rothbard explicitly says that "men can feel, think, evaluate, and ACT ONLY AS INDIVIDUALS". If we can show that his premise is flawed (and we can), his conclusion is also flawed. Further, since this is his argument to declare antihuman the coercion of such conditions, to declare non-coercion as a the natural right, it follows that he is not right.

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  11. The Bleeding Heart Libertarians have a multi-part critique of Rothbard's self ownership system. They have a number of critiques of self-ownership; the one that shocked me the most was the claim that Rothbard and the Lockeans don't understand what it means to actually "own" something.

    "But the fundamental problem, I now think, has to do with Rothbard’s understanding of what it means to “own” something. In fairness, this problem is not unique to Rothbard. One finds it in Locke, too, and in much political thought that follows in his path. But it is an absolutely fundamental problem that infects much of libertarian thought in general, and Rothbardian thought in particular."

    http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/10/reading-the-ethics-of-liberty-part-4-rothbards-second-argument-for-self-ownership/

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